4 Nations, 2 Tripoints, 1 Lake

On July 15, 2014 · 0 Comments

I thought I’d written an article about Africa’s Lake Chad a long time ago so I was surprised to see it still listed on my potential topics spreadsheet as I culled through it recently. A quick search of the 12MC WordPress database found minor references to Lake Chad and little else. I guess I should address that oversight.

Lake Chad Area

The basin feeding into the lake is endorheic. Water falling here doesn’t have an outlet to the sea. Instead liquid drains to the lowest point of elevation in the typical manner, in this case a depression in the earth caused by tectonic forces, to create Lake Chad. Calling it a lake might be a bit misleading as it includes a mixture of smaller lakes and ponds and pools and marshes and mud. Lake Chad grows and contracts as rain falls or it doesn’t, in an annual cycle of wet and dry seasons, through times of abundance and times of drought. This is a very shallow lake, only 10.5 metres (34 feet) at its deepest point, so expansion or contraction can be quite dramatic even within a single year during the interplay between evaporation and replenishment.

The Lake Chad Basin Commission proposed three Lake Chads, a set of variations noted as small, medium and large Lake Chad.

Lake Chad covers less than 10% of the area it occupied in 1960… The current Lake Chad is an ordinary "small Lake Chad", as it has been several times in the past. It has hardly witnessed any major changes since the beginning of the Sahelian drought of 70 years, except for minor seasonal and interannual fluctuations which are typical of its normal functioning.

Other sources sounded considerably less optimistic. The United Nations’ AfricaRenewal described it as "one of the most important agricultural heritage sites in the world, providing a lifeline to nearly 30 million people" and noted "The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called the situation an ‘ecological catastrophe,’ predicting that the lake could disappear this century" Whether natural cycle or permanent situation, this dwindling freshwater reservoir contributed to international tensions.

Drawing Lines

lac tchad
lac tchad by barth1003, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

European colonial powers all wanted a piece of the lake, an unusually large source of water near the southern rim of the Sahara Desert. That transformed into four different African nations sharing Lake Chad once colonial powers relinquished control: Nigeria, Niger, Chad (or Tchad) and Cameroon. It also created two different tripoints within the lake: a Nigeria, Niger, Chad tripoint; and a Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria tripoint. Two of the nations do not share a border. Niger and Cameroon are separated by about 85 kilometres (53 miles).

I wondered about the unusual northern appendage of Cameroon that extended up to Lake Chad like a sipping straw. This traced back to European control too, an artifact of German possession of "Kamerun" for several decades prior to the First World War. The United Kingdom also grabbed a corner of the lake in the formation of Nigeria and France behaved similarly with respect to Niger and Chad. Thus three European powers near the turn of the Twentieth Century coveted the waters, carved the land into colonies, and set the stage for its current international configuration.

That northern notch of Cameroon carried an appropriate name, the Région de l’Extrême-Nord, meaning Extreme North Region or Far North Region when converted into English (both are used). The northernmost department of this region was Logone-et-Chari. The department also had a northernmost settlement, Blangoua, along the Chari River near the point where it emptied into Lake Chad itself. That was the end of the road, as extremely north as one could settle in the extreme north of Cameroon. I found a YouTube video about this isolated Cameroonian outpost, or at least I think that’s what I found because it was in French. Regardless, the imagery provided a fascinating window on the people who lived along the lake.


Four nations sharing a valuable resource had to find a way to cooperate. This led to the creation of the Lake Chad Basin Commission:

The mandate of the Commission is to sustainably and equitably manage the Lake Chad and other shared water resources of the Lake Chad Basin, to preserve the ecosystems of the Lake Chad Conventional Basin, to promote regional integration, peace and security across the Basin.

Nonetheless peace and security have been at risk in the last several years because of the rise of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, including the Lake Chad border area. As noted by Cameroon Info.Net:

Using porous borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon in the desolate scrubland around Lake Chad, they are smuggling bigger weapons, staging cross-border raids, killing and kidnapping in an escalation of violence that could further draw Nigeria’s neighbours into its counter-insurgency fight, security officials say.

Reuters reported that Cameroon was sending 700 soldiers into the Extreme North in March 2014 "as part of a regional force to tackle armed groups in an area where Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram operates."

The future looked pretty scary in the Lake Chad region.

Laguna del Carbón

On July 13, 2014 · 0 Comments

I’ve written about elevation lowpoints previously including Lake Assal (Africa), Lake Eyre (Australia) and Death Valley (North America). It’s been awhile since I wrote about one of those so it seemed like a good opportunity to turn my attention to South America. I don’t provide as much content about that area as I should, probably because the best sources are in Spanish or Portuguese and translation software only goes so far.

The lowest elevation in South America is Laguna del Carbón within the Gran Bajo de San Julián, in Argentina at -105 metres (-345 feet). This elevation is repeated in numerous reputable sources including the CIA World Factbook so it seemed to be accurate. As stated in Geology.com for example,

San Julian’s Great Depression is located in southeastern Argentina. It is the lowest land location in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres. The deepest part is Laguna del Carbón, at approximately 105 meters below sea level.

Laguna del Carbón easily outpaced California’s Death Valley which registered at -86 metres (-282 feet), making the site in Argentina the lowest of the Americas. Yet, few people know about it and fewer people ever visit it.

Laguna del Carbón, Argentina

There didn’t appear to be much of anything at the lowpoint except for an intermittent salt lake at the bottom of a large endorheic basin, in Argentina’s arid Patagonia. It was so unvisited that I could not find a single image with a creative commons license to embed and share within this page.

Gran Bajo de San Julián

Argentina’s Province of Santa Cruz is its southernmost mainland province (only Tierra del Fuego sits farther south) and cuts across the width of the nation. The province’s official website included a Relief & Hydrography page, which described its general layout and included a nice elevation comparison map:

The territory has two well-defined zones: the Andean one, to the west, and the plateaus in the centre and the east. The Chico River is born in the plateau called "the Plateau of death", it flanks the central plateau from the south, branching out in various arms, and flows into an estuary in which the Santa Cruz River also flows.

Plateau of death. It didn’t sound inviting.

A depression formed on the plateau between the Chico River and the Atlantic Ocean, the Gran Bajo de San Julián. One can appreciate the depth and the suddenness of the depression from this random video I found on YouTube. One can also hear the howling wind of an empty, treeless expanse.

Exploring Laguna del Carbón

A tourism industry did not develop around Laguna del Carbón as it did around Death Valley. It remained private property and cannot be visited without permission. Nonetheless a few hearty explorers made the trek and shared their stories on the Intertubes.

South American Explorers posted all back issues of its magazine on its website including Issue 38 (September 1994). It contained the article "Exploring the Gran Bajo de San Julian" In the article, the author noted that the designation of Laguna del Carbón as the lowest point of elevation in the Americas had been fairly recent. The identification of Laguna del Carbón dethroned Death Valley, which was considered to be the lowest point of the Americas up until then. I didn’t find the year that official measurement happened although it would have been well into the second half of the Twentieth Century more than likely. Perhaps that was why the site remained closed to general tourism. Nobody thought it was special until recently.

A site called 7 Lows, dedicated to the noble pursuit of visiting the lowpoints on each of the seven continents, featured Laguna del Carbón even more recently.

There is no major logistical problem getting to the general region where Laguna del Carbón is. The nearest major airport is located at Río Gallegos which is about a 3 to 4 hour drive away. There are several commercial flights each day including flights from Buenos Aires. Laguna del Carbón is located on private land and the biggest logistical problem is obtaining permission to visit.

The trip report and photos included on that site are well worth checking out. Certainly people will travel out of their way to visit the spot. Maybe the economics will allow easier access and perhaps even a small tourism industry to blossom nearby someday.


On June 26, 2014 · 2 Comments

I’ve certainly featured spits of land on 12MC before. They’ve come up in the context of Shingle Spits and in a very specialized sense in one of my favorite geographic forms, the always wonderful tombolo. I was able to visit a particularly nice example of a spit in Homer, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. I’ve discussed their formation by a process called longshore drift in an earlier article so I won’t go into detail about that either.

Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska (my own photo)

Rather, I became a lot more curious about the name. Why spit? The whole notion of spit — the saliva kind — seemed a bit unsettling. Maybe the two could have a common etymology, I pondered. Spit could be expelled from one’s mouth, and a sand spit could seem to be expelled from a nearby landmass in a similar fashion. It appeared somewhat plausible if a bit vulgar.

Fortunately the Intertubes included sources such as the Online Etymology Dictionary that I could consult for such burning questions and curiosities. I took a look at spit, well in its written form not in its literal form of course. The saliva version came from the Old English spittan, similar to spew. It may have had an imitative origin as well, an onomatopoeia, sounding a lot like what it described. How pleasant.

Spit, the landform, may have derived from late Old English spitu, coming down from from Proto-Germanic and before that Proto-Indo-European, meaning a sharp point. A related usage would apply if one cooked meat on a spit. The word spike also fit here.

It appeared that two similarly-sounding words with different etymologies eventually converged. That was interesting for about thirty seconds. Let’s take a look at a few spits I’ve selected somewhat randomly because I found an answer quicker than I expected and I still have a lot of room left in this article.

Arabat Spit

Arabat Spit, Crimea

I decided to highlight the Arabat Spit on the Sea of Azov for a couple of reasons. First, it was considered the longest sand spit in the world at 110 kilometres (68 miles). That in itself was sufficient justification. Second, it became a part of disputed territory with the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Was it part of Ukraine? Was it part of the Russian Federation? I won’t wade into that morass except to note its superlative size and peculiar situation. This is not a political blog.

Inch Strand, Ireland

Inch Beach
Inch Beach by Jim, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Spits can exist anywhere longshore drift takes hold. The process often created great beaches, as happened at Inch Strand (or Inch Beach) on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland (map). An inch would seem to be an unsuitable unit of measurement for this sizable sandy expanse so I’ll assume it came down from something Gaelic. I featured this spot solely because I hope to travel onto the Dingle Peninsula later this summer, and if so, maybe I’ll stop at Inch and take a photograph for the 12MC horde.

Sandspit Beach, Pakistan

Sandspit, Karachi
Sandspit, Karachi by Hemanshu Kumar, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Finally I had to mention Sandspit Beach outside of Karachi, Pakistan along Hawke’s Bay on the Arabian Sea (map). As one source noted, "One thing unique about these waters which you won’t find in any part of the world are the horse and camel rides." I’m sure there were many other places where one could ride a horse on a spit (I even saw that happening on the Homer Spit) so the camel would be the thing that made it special. Did that make Sandspit Beach unique? Where there other spits with camel rides? Do the camels spit on people, as camels sometimes do? Who knows. Let’s proclaim it as if its all true and have the Intertubes work it out.

I confess that I featured Sandspit Beach for a completely different reason. I wanted to add a Pakistan push-pin to the 12MC Complete Index map. Unbelievably, until today, after more than a thousand articles, the Twelve Mile Circle had never focused a single topic on Pakistan. Today was your lucky day, Pakistan.

Imagine dodging camel dung while looking for a sandy spot to lay a towel, though.

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